Why church is often a student’s last priority


I recently read an article by Greg Stier titled, “Why Mormons Do Better Youth Ministry Than We Do.” It really confirms a lot of my struggles about why church and youth group are often at the bottom of the priority list for both students and parents. Greg says this:

  • Mormons expect a lot out of their teenagers. We don’t.
  • Mormons ordain their young men into the ministry at the age of twelve. We don’t.
  • Mormons require their teens to attend seminary every day of high school. We don’t.
  • Mormons ask for two years in the field of every graduating senior. We don’t.

Maybe that’s why we don’t meet a lot of ex-Mormons, while there are hundreds of thousands of former church attendees in the true church of Jesus Christ (of everyday saints) who flee the church after graduating from high school.

Mormons set high standards for their students! If I set some of the expectations that are listen above, most students would not commit and parents would not support it because of conflicts with athletics and other extracurricular activities. Why? Because even school athletic teams and musical groups set higher expectations than we do.

I often hear comments like, “I can’t go to camp because I have football practice that week and if I don’t go to practice, I won’t have a starting spot on next year’s team.” Coaches set the standards high and hold students to it. But then at church and at home from parents students hear the exact opposite: “If you can’t come to youth group this week because you haven’t finished your homework yet, that’s fine. Attend when you can, if you want to.” What that communicates to the student is that academic, athletic and musical development are more important than spiritual development. We have such lazy expectations.

I think parents help feed this mentality of church as a last priority by often restricting youth group activities if homework isn’t done or skipping Sunday morning services for an entire soccer season due to the game schedule. My parents raised me with the exact opposite priorities. My brothers and I were selected on a few occasions to join the elite soccer and wrestling teams, but my parents always said no because the games were on Sunday mornings. As a young kid, that taught me a very valuable lesson: God always comes first. The price for this lesson? A couple little league soccer games and wrestling matches. And today we’re all involved in some sort of ministry.

But it’s just not the parents’ fault, youth pastors contribute to this, as well. We work hard to avoid conflicts with school events and, by doing so, possibly reinforce that academic and athletic development are a higher priority than spiritual development. I think we should avoid scheduling conflicts when it’s possible, but neither should we bend over backwards to avoid it. (I bet religion class every day for Mormon teenagers conflicts with a lot.) We need to set the standards high and stick to ’em. This is spiritual development we’re talking about here. Shouldn’t that be everyone’s #1 priority? Isn’t it much more important than athletic ability?

I think we expect way too little.

Posted on March 13, 2007

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  • I totally understand where you are coming from Tim … but a comparison to mormon teens would not be my ideal. After planting a church in Provo … I can say truthfully that you would never want your teens to go through the rigors of temple life. On my worst day of youth ministry and all the spoiledness of our kids … you would still opt for our problems. First off … we have seen thousands of kids bail from the Mormon church … the reason why you don’t see them is because they are so messed up … it is even difficult to find them. One of the ministries that we have partnered with over the years ministers to kids that escaped the mormon church … some of these kids actually live in the woods and live off the land … like modern day hippies. Drug and alcohol use is off the charts … kids that leave the mormon church do so because of the spiritual abuse and are basically excommunicated.

    It’s true they do expect more out of their kids … but when they fail … and what teen do you know that doesn’t at some point … they pretty much are out.

    I respect you guys so much … and I know your frustration. But I would have to really disagree with you at this point. I have seen the pain and suffering of young people trying to come out of the mormon church and those of us that try to reach with Christianity have a tough time getting through the emotional and physical scars that the mormon church put on them.

    just thought you would want to know.

  • Tim

    Yeah, I understand what you’re saying and your point is valid. Thanks for being honest with your opinion. The comparison to Mormonism is probably also unfair because of the fear and works-based values their religion is based on.

    However, take the whole Mormonism intro out and I still think we could stand to expect more, raise the bar a little and encourage parents and students to make spiritual development a higher priority than is generally is. I feel that youth group is constantly competing with extracurricular activities and when push comes to shove in case of a conflict or too much on a student’s schedule, church is the one that’s expected to bend, re-schedule or suffer from absentees.

    My question is, why is that? And should we go along with it?

  • I agree with Wayne. Perhaps there is something we can learn from Mormons (and we suffer from the sin of pride if we think there is absolutely nothing we can learn). However, we should be careful to extract the godly principle(s)–such as following God should come first in our priorities–and leave what is not godly, such as a lack of grace.

    We should expect more from our youth. Not because we feel like we ought to be better than Mormons in some way, but because Jesus said that if any of us want to come after him, we need to take up our cross and follow him. What does this look like? Certainly a restructuring of priorities would be part of it. Students have many worldly distractions, and this is certainly an issue in contemporary youth ministry. However, we should not just address it by saying “church comes first.” We need to take a good look at Jesus and encourage youth and parents to do the same. After all, there may be some times when a student choosing something over a church event or program would be the most godly decision. The emphasis should be on choosing to deny ourselves and serve Christ every day of our lives. If we teach this principle and expect our youth and families to follow it, it certainly would be asking a lot; to expect less from ourselves and our fellow Christians would be to settle for a cheap form of Christianity.

  • We can and should expect more, but the Mormon church is not the panacea that Stier presents it as being. Mormon kids leave the church and in spite of all their schooling, often can not explain their beliefs clearly.

    What Mormons do is a form of controlling socialization. Ministry is a work of the Holy Spirit. While we always should push for a greater commitment, I do not want to go that far.

  • Tim

    You guys are right. (This is a classic example of why it’s good practice to wait a day or two and re-read your post before publishing it.) I didn’t mean to place so much emphasis on Mormonism — it was just a springboard for my thoughts. This post really came from an event scheduling issue I’m going through right now in my ministry.

  • I have long seen this comparison and feel that we do fall so far short of what our expectations should be. I have had students who do not commit because they are too involved in one (or 7) sports or extracurriculars, right now I have a student who is not allowed to participate in our regular Youth Ministry programming because she has been caught stealing money from her grandmother.
    But I think it goes even deeper. Most of the students that I have seen these problems with have parents who are even less committed than they are… but are still “pillars of the church.” Our students who come from “unchurched” homes are more committed than our students who come from the “strong Christian homes.” I think we as adults (and some of us a parents) contribute to the problem (sometimes) by setting examples that are less than stellar.

  • For what it is worth, Tim, I did not take your post to be praise of the Mormon faith so much as frustration with the lack of commitment on the part of the typical family in our churches. Which is an issue. I just think Stier was over the top in his original piece.

    Keep up the great work!

  • Tim

    @ Brett: I’ve also noticed that same difference in commitment from church kids as opposed to community kids. Sometimes the “Christian noobs” set a great example for the “all-star” church kids.

    @ Jeff: Thanks for the encouragement! I’m glad I’m understood.

  • Tim:

    I read the book as well and I agree with your post.

  • Ann

    Rather than debating on whether the comparison of Mormon youth to Christian youth is a fair one, I would like to push it down a level even deeper – given that there are so many waking hours in a week, what are parents, youth workers and teachers pushing on students as the number one priority and why?

    For a Mormon, living the temple life is of utmost importance to his goal of achieving exaltation, that of becoming god of his own planet. As one Mormon once told me, anything less would be their version of hell. So the Mormon teen, works and works, trying to do enough ministry and good deeds to secure his place in the afterlife. The Mormon that realizes the impossiblity of “being good enough” can become discouraged and give up.

    For the athlete, competing at a high level and winning are tantamount. Perhaps they are pursuing sports at the intercollegiate or, more remotely the professional level. Anything that gets in the way of this goal is to be discarded.

    For the academic the goal is getting into the right college to obtain the proper training for one’s career. To settle for less than stellar grade performance could mean a lower standard of living.

    Now these three examples are perhaps the students’ thinking as to why they would place a priority on their time. I have not even added in pressure from family, coaches, teachers or counselors.

    What I am saying that other things -school, sports, other religions often articulate better than we as Christian youth workers do as to WHY they should make their relationship with Christ or our youth ministry a priority. If there is no WHY, then Christianity is just another one of the many things to compete with the time that’s left over. Part of our job is conveying the WHY to their parents as well.

  • Tim

    Ann, I think you might’ve hit the nail on the head and answered my question. That totally makes sense.

  • Ann

    My challenge would be to ask the question of all youth pastors/workers who read this:
    “The reason that students should make youth group a high priority of their time and commitment is….?”
    No fair with just “the Bible says so.” (Honestly, the Bible says nothing about attendance at youth group anyway.) “Pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die” answers may be true too, but totally unsatisfactory to a 15 year old that thinks death and therefore eternity is 80 years off.
    So let’s hear it!

  • Hey Tim,

    Wow! What great comments! I do agree that in some ways it is an unfair comparison (Mormon teens vs. Christian teens). One religion is motivated by good deeds for salvation and the other should be motivated by grace because of salvation. But, either way, shouldn't we expect more out of those motivated by grace? I think the fundamental problems are disengaged parents (who don't pay attention to Deuteronomy 6) and a youth ministry system that is more fun focused than mission driven. Love it or hate it Mormons are consumed with their version of the Great Commission. What if we raised the bar for our parents, our youth ministry models and our teens and built a Great Commission culture where teens were going wide with the gospel AND growing deep in the truth?

    Is that too much to expect?

  • Tim … all in all … a very good post with very good comments … I think we all identify the priorities that parents and kids have on church v. school activities. It’s like last week … a church in our city shut down all of their activities, churchwide — because it was spring break. I questioned one of their staff members and asked … do you really think that many people are going to leave town to warrant canceling mid-week stuff. He commented that … it didn’t matter … folks have a mindset that even if they don’t go out of town … it’s like a get out of church card (his words not mine).

    sad … but true.

  • Great thoughts from everyone. There should be a higher level of expectations. My daughter plays a lot of club volleyball. This year many of her tournaments landed on Sundays. That is tough as a staff pastor.

    She herself opted for not doing many of the tournaments. The only one we are doing that lands on a Sunday is a regional qualifier.

    I feel going to the one, especially in light of her attitude of committment to God and church, does not take anything away from not being there. As a family we will use the weekend to get away and recharge. Especially since it will be down in South Padre.

  • Tim

    @ Wayne: Yeah, that’s the thing that frustrates me. What if only two people came to church for spiritual encouragement during spring break? Wouldn’t it be worth doing just for those two people?

    @ Greg: Thanks for stopping by! I would love to have a youth ministry that is consumed with the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. My question is this: Am I encouraging parents and leaders to place other things as a higher priority if I do everything I can to avoid scheduling conflicts with their extracurricular events? Is it wrong of me to say, “Ya know, I’m sorry this Bible study time conflicts with your son/daughter’s track practice, but this is the best time for us to do it so I guess you’ll have to decide which to attend.” Unfortunately, church stuff usually looses.

    @ Jason: I’m glad to see you’re holding standards for your daughter and that her attitude is ultimately commitment to God. Keep up the good work, man. :)

  • I love the discussion this post has created. I, being a former Youth Pastor’s wife (Current Senior Pastor’s wife) and a parent to three very active daughters (sports, drama, piano lessons, bass lessons, + teenage social life), experience the dilemma of helping my daughters understand the value of living a Great Commission lifestyle. I also remember how hard it was for us with youth group sessions to get the kind of attendance and involvement we felt was needed.

    I’ve landed on understanding that the teaching of this life living principle – to be Great Commission focused – is my responsibility as a mom. I have had to constantly help teach my girls that in every situation there exists opportunities to segue into conversation about the Gospel. But the point is – it is MY responsiblity, not the youth leader’s, to do this – however, having a great youth leader and volunteers pouring in to their lives is a bonus. I often tell my girls how important attending and participating in church lessons and activities is – not to forsake that, but when practices, rehearsals, lessons, and jobs squeeze youth group night out of their schedule, then we focus on the opportunities to take the teaching they’ve learned [and hopefully my husband and I have modeled] into the midst of their other activities. It’s easy to just sit back and let the girls be busy and remove any responsibility for them to engage in spiritual stuff – but that’s not what God called me to as a mom. I respect people’s decisions to forbid any activity that interfere’s with church, but at the same time, I believe that we sometimes paint a poor picture to the coach or others when we refuse to participate. What if by participating, modeling Christian attitudes and engaging in spiritual conversations with teammates, we actually made Christianity attractive and found them wanting to attend with us when they can? I know there’s a balance to this – but just as in everything, I believe in seeking out the Holy Spirit’s direction prayerfully in each opportunity and also helping my kids learn to decide what they will do on their own. If they choose to make a stand to not participate because it interfere’s with their time of worship – great, we celebrate. If they choose not to, then we find ways to make sure we’re still getting fed spiritually – attending alternate time services, deeper studies together, etc.

    So – to end this rambling, I really wish more parents would remember their calling as parents and would help their kids learn to live out their faith and be Great Commission focussed all the time, everywhere, with anyone, at church or elsewhere. It takes intentionality but it can be really rewarding when they catch on.

    Thanks, Jason, for starting this dialogue. I have a long way to go, but I am learning and enjoying the lessons along the way! My kids are older now, 16, almost 18, almost 21 – but they are comfortable sharing their faith and are also all attending and active in church. I pray for them daily and pray for them to continue to be passionate followers of Christ. As a mom, I’m really thankful for God’s daily provision of wisdom to us when I need it and His grace when I miss the mark.

  • I agree that we need to raise our level of expectations. I think for too long we have settled just to be happy if juniors and seniors showed up at church. Meanwhile they are captains of sportsteams, assistant managers at work and presidents of school clubs. each with major consequences if they don’t show up.

    I am not sure how or if we want to combat that. We don’t have the leverage a coach or a boss has, so what are we to do?

    It still amazes me after 20+ years of youth ministry that parents still think it is appropriate to correct their children by withholding church attendance.

  • wow … I can’t believe this post keeps going and going … but it’s good. The problems that most of you speak about from a ministry standpoint … and I speak generically in reference to a majority of parents. Plus I speak from one who has seen a great deal of change over the last 30 years of ministry (experience is a b*!#%) … Most parents see church as a “hobby”. An add on to life … not life itself. So … if their kid enjoys youth group … it’s the same as grounding them from their Xbox … if they step out of line. I have noticed and commented on this for years. There is no spiritual reality involved in most homes … yet you guys actually live what you believe and that makes it frustrating for you. There are some parents who get it … but they are a small percentage. My kids were involved in sports and choir and stuff … but they knew deep within themselves that corporate worship and being involved in peoples life for the sake of gospel was way more important than temporary sports fame. I told my boys real quick … you probably are not going to play for the NFL or NBA … so realize that there are more important things than sports in High School. I also was a High School coach and tried to instill that into the kids that I worked with on a daily basis.

    The short of it guys is this … Parents are pretty much the issue here. If the lights are on and nobody is home in the spiritual growth dept … you are working from the wrong end of the water hose.

    wayne g

  • Tim

    @ Carol Ann: Thanks for your input! I know I already told you this in my e-mail, but I really appreciate your perspective, both as a parent and a youth worker.

    @ Joe Ball: I agree! I’m not willing to be happy just if kids show up to youth group. I want them to become spiritual leaders who are thirsty for God and make Him (not necessarily my youth group) their #1 priority.

    @ Wayne Gooden: Parents are part of the issue, but we are part of it, as well. And so are the students, obviously. My questions is, what part do I play in correcting their priorities, even if it makes parents upset when I “buck the system?”

    I have a parent meeting coming up sometime within the next month or two and I think I may talk briefly about this issue. Since I’m new, I might be able to get away with it easier than if I was a couple years into this position. It might allow me to set the standard from the very beginning. I dunno. What do you guys think? Should we address this with the students and their parents?

  • I think it’s a great idea to bring it up. I would do it as an open question, have them get into groups with other parents to discuss and then ask for feedback.

    I’d pose a questions like:

    What is the youth leader’s role in getting student involvement in church activities and teaching times?
    What is the parent’s role in getting student involvement….
    What is the student’s role in participating in …

    How should the youth leader and parents work together to positively impact a student’s spiritual growth?

    How should we handle the growing situation of students’ involvement in sporting activities or jobs which impact their ability to attend church activities?

    I’d be really interested to hear the feedback. I think acknowledging with parents that you all have the same goal – seeing students’ lives exhibiting spiritual growth – but have real challenges in achieving this goal and that you desire to come alongside them to work towards the best solution …that’s a really good thing.

    Unfortunately, I remember parent’s meetings where out of 70 – 100 who should have come, we had less then 10 show up – again, a direct reminder that parent’s are abdicating their parental spiritual responsibility!

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  • One reason is just that. They will not start or may not play if they miss football camp, but what are the consequences when they don’t show up at church? In reality God will always be there for them, but the coach and HS opportunities won’t.

    Parents know this, in fact they live that…church isn’t high on the parents list either.

    Tim-I agree with the questions Carol Ann posted… I would add a brainstorming session on what they as parents would want their student to look like when they graduate. By that I mean, what do they want them to have experienced, studied, been challenged in, etc. That always told me alot about what was important to the parents.

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  • Dustin

    This is a new site to me, but I plan on using it. I really have learned a lot from the frustrations presented from the rest of you. I never thought about the lack of parental spiritual growth as part of the problem. I am a lay member of my local church and have undertaken the responsibility of being the youth leader. Over the last several weeks I have planned all sorts of activities and Bible studies and only had a handful of youth attend. The same excuses y’all are talking about. It is so frustrating. But I decided yesterday that I am going to minister to whomever shows up, even if it is only my wife and me!

    I refuse to allow Satan to claim this new generation of the church! Let’s all keep the faith and focus on making disciples of Christ.

  • Tim

    You’re a good man, Dustin! Continue to be faithful in your calling, serving Him to the best of your ability and the Lord will bless you richly.

    A tip I might suggest as you start is to focus more on building relationships with individual students rather than building a nice calendar of events. Kids will come when they know they are loved and wanted.

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  • Josh

    I am a new youth pastor – almost 6 months now. I have been shocked at how fickle and flighty our teens are about youth group and church activities. If there is anything else at all that is going on they will bail on youth group, even big youth group events. I think that the modern seeker friendly church movement and our consumer mentality have created this problem. Youth Group is just another possible activity or group of friends instead of a place to find and experience God through His word. But there is hope. I have been preaching doctrine of God’s word to them, and I am seeing some real growth in some. These few are really becoming faithful. One girl even got sick of softball because she had to miss so many nights of youth group. There is hope – it is the Word of God that does not return void. Preach doctrine.

  • @ Josh: Yeah, you’re exactly right. I actually blogged about how this has been working itself out in our youth group here.

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